Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

Booming Baby Food: Infant Food and Feeding in Post-World War II America

Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

Booming Baby Food: Infant Food and Feeding in Post-World War II America

Article excerpt

In 1949 New York Times food writer Jane Nickerson devoted most of her regular column, "News of Food," to discussing the new Gerber recipe booklet, Special Diet Recipes, featuring Gerber-based recipes for adult invalids. Nickerson, her usual staid tone spiked with a modicum of excitement, noted approvingly that the booklet offered readers the choice of fourteen different luncheon or supper dishes: "This guarantees against boredom on the part of the patient who must follow a prescribed regimen for a long time." She suggested further that "if the patient can come to the table, some of the prescribed dishes might be served to the rest of the family, too. And many of the foods are so appetizing there is little chance of those who are well offering any objections. In fact, some of the beverages would meet with great enthusiasm from the youngsters during warm weather." Nickerson's column concluded with a recipe for "Apricot Refresher": "one egg white, two tablespoons orange juice, and one can of Gerber's apricots with farina or apricot applesauce. Combine ingredients in a jar with a fight-fitting top. Shake the jar until the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, but not foamy. Pour over cracked ice and serve. Yield: one medium-sized serving." (1)

Like other food writers of her day, Nickerson was taken by the novelty and convenience of industrially processed foods and unapologetically promoted their use. She and other food writers in the late 1940s were willing participants in Gerber's efforts to increase baby-food sales. Not satisfied with its soaring profits and already steady growth, and troubled by reports (wildly inaccurate as it would turn out) that birthrates would decline over the next decade, Gerber, as well as Beech-Nut, sought to expand market share by promoting baby food as efficient and convenient for all ages. (2) Gerber ran ads aimed at getting senior citizens and "invalids" needing soft-textured foods to try its products. Beech-Nut's cookbook, Family Fare from Baby Foods: 100 Beech-Nut Recipes for the Entire Family, included such recipes as "Puree Mongole" (requiring two jars of strained peas, tomato paste, bouillon cubes, cream, curry powder, and sherry) and "Ham and Spinach Souffle" (one jar junior spinach, ground ham, eggs, flour, and seasonings). When this approach failed to catch on, however, baby-food makers returned to focusing their efforts on selling food for the ever increasing numbers of infants in the postwar baby-boom years. (3)

Gerber need not have worried about declining birthrates and sales. The United States had emerged from World War II a superpower with its economy thriving, signaling the arrival of what Time publisher Henry Luce deemed the American Century. After a decade and a half of upheaval wrought by the Great Depression and World War II, millions of new families now felt confident enough to bear and raise children, resulting in the remarkable birthrates that reached their apex in the 1950s and remained high through the early 1960s. As manufacturers returned to domestic production of durable goods, and advertisers promoted the modern household items they insisted every family must have, Americans unleashed their pent-up consumer desires. There was so much to buy, and in contrast to the past decade and a half, so much money to spend. In fact, consumption seemed to become an end in itself. This postwar era, known for fostering and lionizing the "purchaser as citizen," enabled Americans, as Lizabeth Cohen explains, to "simultaneously fulfill personal desire and civic obligation by consuming." (4) Consuming food was a central part of this, of course, especially given the flood of new "value added" industrially produced products, which included dozens of new varieties of baby food. (5)

The postwar era offered great possibilities for the Gerber Products Company and other baby-food manufacturers, who (eventually) realized that their business was now a growth industry. As birthrates rose, commercial baby-food production expanded to keep up with demand. …

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